That smartphone or tablet computer you’re probably reading this story on – any idea what makes it run?
The answer is metals and minerals. And you get those through mining.
The Mining Association of Canada’s website mining.ca calls metals and minerals the ‘building blocks’ of the smartphones and computers we rely upon, the vehicles that get us around, the buildings in which we work and live, and the green technologies that may one day save the planet from turning into Mars or Venus-like conditions.
But the industry providing the backbone for the technology boom does not exactly have a reputation for embracing technology itself, and that is where the Centre for Smart Mining (CSM) of Cambrian College comes in. Based in Canada’s mining capital of Sudbury, Ontario, the CSM facilitates new technology adoption for the mining industry, which has lagged in adopting new technology over the years.
CSM Manager Stephen Gravel said his organization focuses on mining technology companies and mining end-users as its main client base. It has expertise in underground technologies, alternative tailings treatment technologies, digital technologies, and battery-powered mining vehicles.
Gravel is quite blunt about the CSM’s reason for existence. “Mainly, I would say, the reason we exist is that the mining sector hasn’t really gone through a technology retrofitting since the 1970s and ‘80s, and with the advent of technology we have in our homes going into mines, companies are having a hard time coming to terms with that new technology,” he explained. “So, what we do is at the center, is, we do pilot studies and proof of concepts and make it easier for them to buy and implement new technology.”
Essentially, the CSM helps businesses in the mining industry focus is mining needs and technology from an applied research and technology skills development perspective. It is all about bringing the mining industry around the world up to date. But why has the industry lagged?
Gravel said this typically happens because of the great cost of deviation from established practices. This is not an industry, he explained, where a company can just try a product in the street like a new car. Any interruption to underground production means loss of profit, and if a mine tunnel is shut down to test new technology, that is a lot of time and money lost.
Something else mining companies have to consider is that testing and adopting new technology is capital sensitive. If a company bought a diesel-powered fleet five years ago, the cost of replacing that equipment with electric vehicles is a huge upfront cost. That is a lot to consider for any company when the current fleet is still working and relatively inexpensive to maintain.
Gravel said that mines have to see new technology adopted by other mines before they will adopt it, which is another hindrance to adopting that new technology.
“That’s not a direct rule. They’ll buy with their eyes, traditionally,” he said, “but they need to see it in operation. They want to see the white papers, the engineering, more so than other industries, like IT for example, and everything they do is bigger and more expensive, so making mistakes with bigger, more expensive things means a lot more risk.”
Everything is huge in mining, Gravel added, and it wears. Where a person who drives a regular vehicle might spend $500 for a set of tires, a mining vehicle may cost tens of thousands of dollars to outfit with new rubber. If a company comes along with a new rubber technology that could be more cost-efficient, a mining company is more likely to say it wants to see proof of the return on investment before it will adopt it.
“So, what we do there is we’ll do demystification through pilot studies so clients will be more apt to buy, and technology companies will get a sale out of it,” said Gravel. “We can also help any skills gap that may come up in maintaining a fleet of vehicles.”
Gravel explained that if a mining company owner has, for example, thirty years of operation, it would stand to reason it would have a roster of heavy-duty equipment mechanics who are accustomed to fixing and maintaining diesel equipment. If that company wants to adopt new battery technology, there will be a significant skills gap among employees on how to maintain and safely operate that new equipment. So, the CSM can create short, purpose-built, customized training courses where it will develop course content to help industry leaders.
Safety is a huge motivator for the CSM as well, especially given that there have been some horrific mining accidents in the past. Making mining technology safer is more important than ever, and the CSM works with partners that have innovations for simple but important things like the air mine workers breathe when they are so far underground.
“When people think of electric vehicles, they’ll think of Tesla or wonder what’s Toyota going to do in the future but not this industry, and we need to think of it,” he said. “For every horsepower of diesel equipment operating underground, we have to supply the appropriate amount of air coming from the surface – at great cost – using ventilation, and the added cost of ventilation in mining is really fuelling this rapid technology adoption. A lot of people don’t really know about that.”
Sudbury is known for its mining industry, having been mining nickel for over a century. Gravel says several companies in the Northern Ontario city are talking about purchasing between 250 to 300 electric vehicles for mine use in the next four years, which Gravel says can be considered an important move. The electric vehicle version of the typical diesel vehicle is usually twice as expensive, which one possible vehicle reaching upwards of $1 million.
“That’s a huge investment, so we’re trying to make sure their investment in those vehicles is less risky by providing the workforce with the technology and techniques to adopt them,” he said.
Asked what he is most proud of, Gravel does not hesitate. The CSM’s work with underground robotics makes him want to, in his words, “shout from the rooftops.” In the last two decades, he said, the industry has seen controlled underground vehicles coming closer to looking like an X-box game controller. A recently-finished project from a company called Clickmox has users operate underground 5G enabled drones to scan mines. Those just starting in life and trying to figure out what they want to do, Gravel advises, should consider mining, as it is high tech and can take you around the world.
Being part of a college, students are an integral part of the CSM. In fact, for every industry project involving the CSM, the centre’s mandate states it must include student researchers, so whenever it works with a company, a student of a related discipline is there to add value.
“We want to be able to give them an immersive experience,” explained Gravel. “And who better to hire at the end of a project than a student who has worked on that project?”
As early as the fall of this year, the CSM will start to offer students some of the materials it has created for clients in its electric vehicles program. Cambrian College in particular has been looking into connected devices underground, the centre is watching the industry to figure out where the gaps are.
Gravel is proud of how the CSM keeps a close relationship with industry partners, such as FiComm Technologies, Sofvie Inc., Ionic Mechatronics, and Laurentian University.
“It’s not just about showing new equipment or about meeting a new engineer we just brought on board,” he said. “We always talk about how we can help, how we are able to go to industry and get a laundry list of things that keeps them up at night and provide solutions.”
Other projects the CSM has worked on include Underground 3D cavity scanner design and development, battery-electric drivetrain development, digital lockout solutions for pneumatic systems, wearable health monitoring for miners, and crusher feed optimization using machine learning. Check out the Center for Smart Mining at Cambrian College’s website to find out more.